Rivals Anya, Meeks find common ground in fighting their Battles of the Bulge

Though they are rivals in the sense that they represent teams whose fan bases dont care for one another, the two basketball stars are also kindred spirits -- friends bound by a mutual love for basketball and the weighty struggle each continues to face

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
North Carolina State forward BeeJay Anya (21) and North Carolina State guard Terry Henderson (3) block a shot by Georgia Southern forward B.J. Gladden (5) during the first half of a college men's basketball game on Friday

At 6-foot-9, BeeJay Anya and Kennedy Meeks are considered to be big men in the vernacular of their sport.

Checking in at over 300 pounds per frame when they first arrived at their respective school, both have taken that description to an extreme.

In the three years that followed, NC State’s Anya and North Carolina’s Meeks have spent as much time and effort fighting a battle of the bulge as they have battling for low post position.

It’s a shared struggle that has provided them with a bond extending beyond the court.Though they are rivals in the sense that they represent teams whose fan bases don’t care much for one another, the two basketball stars are also kindred spirits — friends bound by a mutual love for basketball and the weighty struggle each continues to face.

“It’s been similar,” said Anya. “We’re both are at our favorite schools, have a chance to get in the gym and lose as much weight as possible and get in the best shape as possible.

“A big thing for both of us is to focus on our weight, because the smaller we are, the more effective I think we are. We’ve both been through that process. It’s been good having someone else who’s gone through that too.”

Anya, from Washington DC, and Charlotte native Meeks have known one another since battling in their pre-college days on the AAU summer circuit. Their friendship has blossomed since their arrival in the Triangle.

The two stay in frequent contact — they even attended the Beyoncè concert at Carter-Finley Stadium together with their girlfriends last summer.

As much as their paths have brought them together off the court, their careers on it have taken vastly different turns.

And weight is the big reason.

Meeks, who tipped the scales at 323 pounds when he arrived in Chapel Hill as a McDonald’s All-American before the 2013-14 season, is now proudly down to a svelte 260. The loss of 63 pounds has not only brought about a dramatic change in the way he looks, but it has also allowed him to play longer, more effective minutes while becoming the Tar Heels’ primary inside threat.

Anya also experienced an extreme makeover after beginning his Wolfpack career at 350 pounds. But after shedding 60 pounds of his own and earning the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards as a sophomore in 2014-15 — along with hitting the buzzer-beating shot that beat LSU in a first-round NCAA tournament game — his role has diminished as his weight has returned.

He is listed on State’s preseason roster at 344 pounds, a figure that left both Meeks and Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried shaking their heads.

For vastly different reasons.

“Three forty-four?” Meeks said with surprise when told of Anya’s situation. “That can’t be true.”

According to Gottfried, it is. Or at least it was at the start of preseason practice.

Though Anya claims that his physique is “all muscle” and says that he’s not as concerned with his weight as he is “being in the best shape possible,” his size and physical conditioning remain a source of frustration for his coach.

Gottfried has spent so much time answering questions about the subject, that — at least publicly — given up fighting the good fight.

“We’ll see how it all plays out,” Gottfried said of Anya, who has averaged only 12.5 minutes, 5.0 points and 2.0 rebounds through the Wolfpack’s first two games this season.  It’s a role that could diminish even more once five-star center Omer Yurtseven becomes eligible on Dec. 15.

“At this point, it is what it is,” Gottfried said. “We’ll have to do the best job we can moving forward.”

Like Gottfried, UNC coach Roy Williams has spent a lot more time than he would like over the past three years hounding his own super-sized big man. The difference is that now, instead of staying on Meeks about his weight, he’s constantly pushing him to take advantage of his new smaller, lighter frame.

“Losing weight is the most difficult thing,” Williams said. “Now, remember that you’ve lost it and be more explosive, more aggressive and more focused. That’s the part that’s been a struggle for him.

“He’s done the most difficult work already. Now he’s got to realize who he is. He’s more athletic, he can make moves quickly, he can be more explosive. If he does that and translates it to every day, then I think he really does have some steps he can take.”

Meeks appeared to be on that track last season until a bruised knee forced him to miss seven games in late December and early January. While he was out, he gained back a few of his pounds and lost a half step of quickness. His played suffered once he got back. It wasn’t until UNC’s postseason run to the national championship game that he finally regained his form.

After a summer in which he went through the NBA draft process and worked tirelessly with strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian — he recently bench-pressed a personal best 300 pounds — Meeks has gotten off to a fast start this season by averaging 12.7 points and 11.3 rebounds in the Tar Heels’ first three games.

“Kennedy has gotten more explosive, but what’s really impressed me is his strength,” teammate Isaiah Hicks said. “A couple years back, me and Kennedy could guard each other. Now it seems like I can’t do anything against him because he’s so strong.”

It really shows how much work he put in to get the way. He can post up wherever he wants and his soft touch has gotten even better.”

That’s good news for a UNC team looking to replace one of the nation’s best big men in first-round NBA draft pick Brice Johnson. But just because Meeks appears to be winning his battle of the bulge, Sahratian isn’t declaring victory just yet.

“Is it a success story? I don’t know,” Sahratian said after UNC’s exhibition victory against UNC Pembroke on Nov. 4. “That’s yet to be seen. It’s a struggle all the time.”

How much of a struggle?

Only minutes before doing the interview in which he was quoted, Sahratian said that he had to admonish Meeks about eating too much after the game. The problem is, Sahratian and Williams aren’t always around to keep their senior center on the straight-and-narrow.

“The biggest thing is what they do in the 22 hours a day they’re away from us,” Sahratian said. “You can’t control what they’re eating when they’re not around you. You try to educate them and teach them to make good decisions, but sometimes that doesn’t always happen.”

For the most part, Meeks has stuck to a diet consisting of more lean meats and vegetables and fewer fried foods and carbohydrates.

Anya also lost his weight through a combination of exercise and diet — replacing his favorite crispy chicken club sandwich from McDonald’s with a healthier menu.

“I drive down Western Blvd. and it’s hard not to turn right,” he said back in 2014, referring to the stretch of road near State’s campus lined with fast food restaurants. “I’ve got to look straight ahead, because if I look to the right a little bit … yeah.”Apparently the siren call of the Big Mac and pizza became too much, causing Anya to do more than look to the right.

Despite his physical regression, both he and his teammates have faith in his ability to be a major contributor for the Wolfpack this season — especially on the defensive end of the floor, where he’s already State’s all-time leader in blocked shots.

“BeeJay is the x-factor for us,” fellow big man Abdul-Malik Abu said. “Once he realizes how dominant he could be, the sky’s the limit for him.”

Time, however, is starting to run out. But Anya isn’t giving up on getting into as good a shape as possible while wearing a Wolfpack uniform.

“I’m working in the weight room, lifting three times a week with the assistant coaches, doing extra running after practice, getting on the [stationary] bike, looking cool, getting my heart rate up,” he said. “I wish I could last longer.

“I have a little more improvement to make. Right now I feel awfully good going up and down the court. My stamina has been better every day at practice. Hopefully by January I’m at my exact greatest shape I’ve ever been in. That’s where I want to be.”

His friend Meeks is rooting for him to accomplish his goal, with the exception of their two head-to-head meetings on Jan. 7 and Feb. 15. At the same time, though Meeks admitted to having some concern about a rival he called “one of my very good friends.

“We definitely try to stay on top of each other, but people are going to do what they want to do and go in the direction they want to go,” the UNC star said. “That still doesn’t take away from how good a player he is.”

Anya said that he and Meeks rarely talk about basketball when they get together, adding that “our friendship goes beyond that.”

Instead, they talk “about life, about school” and perhaps a few subjects only they can truly understand given the bond they share and the mutual battle they continue to fight.